Instructor wrote nasty comments on my paper - how to react?
December 8, 2014 3:11 PM   Subscribe

A graduate student instructor at my public university handed back my paper today with various snarky comments about my performance in class. Am I overreacting? Should I respond? Complain? Just ignore it?

This instructor really encouraged discussion and participation in the class (of 40 students), and it seems like she got to know most students very well. I have had poor attendance for this class and probably made to less than half of the classes. I am also one of two or three people who never raised their hands in class or participated. I have gotten full points on all of the tests and quizzes. Participation is 10% of the final grade for the class, but there were several opportunities for extra credit so I have an average in the range for an A.

I got my paper back a few hours ago (graded online) and saw a huge paragraph in the comments section. The general gist of the comments: you were never in class and you don't deserve the grades you received, "I hope you learned a lot by skipping class", "it pains me to give you an A", "I'm so glad the class got to benefit from your thoughtful participation".

I don't really feel the need to justify why I was absent, but I am a full-time caretaker for my paralyzed mother and I'm also dealing with my own mental health issues. Obviously I think her actions are unprofessional and uncalled for. This is the kind of thing you are supposed to think to yourself, not put in writing.

I'm never going to see her again and I'm graduating in a week, so I'm really not all that concerned and don't really care enough to complain to the department. Part of me wants to send a snarky email explaining to her what I have to deal with every day and really rub her insensitivity in her face (I'm not going to do this).

Am I overreacting? Should I complain to the department? Should I send her email addressing some of the comments? Should I just ignore it? Thanks for any advice!
posted by anonymous to Education (66 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As you said, you're graduating in a week and will never see this person again. Let it go.
posted by Leatherstocking at 3:14 PM on December 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

She's out of line. Full stop.

Hit post too soon. Upon edit:

That said, you got the grade you deserve. You're right; you don't owe her an explanation. Be on your way. This doesn't matter in the long run.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 3:15 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you do anything, you should send a copy of her comments to the department with a (polite and calm) note expressing your disappointment that the instructor acted so unprofessionally. The department is partially responsible for teaching their graduate students appropriate and professional behavior in the classroom.

If you don't want to take it up with the department (which is understandable), then yes, you should ignore it. Addressing the comments with the instructor directly won't really accomplish anything, IMO.
posted by muddgirl at 3:15 PM on December 8, 2014 [61 favorites]

Take it as a final part of your education: the world is full of assholes, and you just need to learn to ignore them.
posted by Thing at 3:15 PM on December 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

Complain to the department, that's outside the pale. If there's an instructor of record who's different from the grad student, start with them, otherwise dept. chair.
posted by momus_window at 3:16 PM on December 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

YMMV, but as a former grad student: Do not contact her directly.

If you feel there is any worth in contacting someone about this: If she was an instructor who was working with a professor for this class, contact the professor. Otherwise, yes, contact the department. A simple email with a photo and typed-up 'choice quotes' should suffice; "I was concerned by the unprofessional tone and hope that this does not reflect on the department as a whole..."

Why? To save someone else the embarrassment of reading those types of comments on their paper in the future.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:17 PM on December 8, 2014 [44 favorites]

Yeah, though it's big of you to want to refrain from snark, there are going to be other students in situations similar to yours, and I have to wonder if they're all going to receive these comments too. Though I'm not sure the kind of person who would write this crap in the first place would be able to learn from a polite but terse e-mail about your circumstances, she might at least learn to bite her tongue if there's department disapproval.
posted by automatic cabinet at 3:21 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'd go to her office hours and say, "Thanks for your feedback. I'll be sure to let other students like me know that your course is easy to access and get through even when you're dealing with health issues and an ailing family member. Thanks for being a good enough instructor that even when I couldn't come to class I knew what I needed to do and could get it done well."

But I am a grumpy bitch who has little to no tolerance for lousy professors so YMMV.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:22 PM on December 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

Most of the time there is an anonymous end-of-semester evaluation students get to do. If you haven't already completed it, I'd rate her very high on everything except very low on "appropriate feedback" or however they phrase it in the quantitative part. You want this to stand out as an issue, and rating her highly on everything else will show you're not just disgruntled in general. And use the comment section to say something about these comments. Don't talk about what you're going through personally; keep it anonymous. She may have said similar things to other students, and it would be great if all of her feedback to students was investigated.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:23 PM on December 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'd ignore it. But, in the future, if you have challenging obligations that prevent you from attending scheduled events that you're expected to attend as part of class or work, it's best practice to let the person in charge know ahead of time. You needn't go into lots of detail, but the lack of communication about it leads people to think that you're flaky and aren't taking things seriously.

It's hardly appropriate for this Teacher's Assistant to communicate in this fashion with you, so you'd be well within your rights to report it to higher ups.
posted by quince at 3:25 PM on December 8, 2014 [42 favorites]

I feel you.

I would work some serious guilt on her. I would write to her and copy the dean. Take a snap of her comments and include them in the email. This is just TERRIBLE teaching and really uncalled for.


I was rather shocked and disappointed to receive the attached comments on my final paper. I know that for many students that attending classes and doing the work is the sum total of their university experience. It may interest you to know that I am also a caretaker for my paralyzed mother. I am blessed in that I can glean quite a lot from reading and from the classes I was able to attend. If I had been concerned about my grade and my understanding of the material, I might have made an effort to attend more classes, but, since I was able to keep up, I chose to devote more time to other aspects of my life.

I am sure that from your viewpoint that a student who seems to be coasting is an affront to your life's work. But perhaps in the future you can step back and think about what each of us might have going on in our lives. If you were concerned about me, a simple discussion after class might have cleared some things up for you.

Your lack of empathy and uncalled for comments have left a bitter taste in my mouth about you and your class.

But as I've observed here before, I'm a very small person.

Really though, if it seems like too much DRAMAZ, let it go. She's an ass.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:25 PM on December 8, 2014 [21 favorites]

Another thing you might do is send an email to the department saying "This was the feedback I received from Instructor X via [online software] on [date]." Copy-paste it in full. Don't comment on it, don't cherry pick the most egregious bits. Just let them know.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:28 PM on December 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

It shouldn't matter why you had to be absent from class. If attendance was mandatory, they would make it mandatory (I had college classes like that). Or attendance would be directly and irrecoverably built into the grade. You learned the material, followed the syllabus, and got a good grade. No excuses necessary, then or now.
posted by muddgirl at 3:31 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Dear Instructor,

I am the full-time caregiver for my paralyzed mother.


posted by jbenben at 3:31 PM on December 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

I'm sorry but... you are not a customer, and you should not expect instructors to treat you as a consumer to be catered to. You were a participant who then looked at the "rules" of the system, realized what you could get away with, and defied the implicit expectations of your participation in class because you needed the class for the purposes of credit so you could graduate. And you fulfilled your requirements using the time of an instructor who was passionate about the subject matter while you treated it as a hurdle due your minimum of attention.

And I am not saying you're a bad person-- people do what they have to do. I've taken classes where the implicit contract of the class was the instructor's acknowledement that the students needed the class to punch a card for their credential while working and that the class wasn't an important part of their intellectual development: everyone is in a different place in life.

But the job of the instructor was to give you an evaluation. You got evaluated. You wanted a grade and figured out how to maximize your grade within the constraints of the class parameters, ignoring what you were able to ignore while still keeping your grade up. Now you seem upset that the instructor pointed out that you did exactly what you did.
posted by deanc at 3:32 PM on December 8, 2014 [70 favorites]

Bentobox's advice is the most pragmatic course of action. Her remarks don't warrant a response really. Just forward them on and let her department chastise her if they will.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:32 PM on December 8, 2014

I'm with quince - like it or not, this is something of a wake-up call that if you have problems adhering to a scheduled activity, it is to your advantage to inform whoever is in charge.

That said - instead of getting the school involved etc, just send her a short email that says what you wrote in this post: you're a full time caretaker for your mom, etc. Unless she is a soulless robot, it will be a loooong time before she snarks again.

On preview: what jbenben said.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:34 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

No good can come of writing the instructor directly. Please don't.

The particular circumstances are not really relevant—even if you had no reason for any absences (or your total lack of participation even when you are present), the instructor's comments are not professional or appropriate. You should forward to the faculty member in charge of teaching in your department (sometimes this is an "associate chair" or the like but if you can't figure it out, send to the chair).

If there's a reason you will be routinely absent from a class or something similar in the future, please let the organizer know. It's very frustrating to put a great amount of effort into something and have participants just randomly not show up.
posted by grouse at 3:40 PM on December 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would wait till my grade was posted and I was sure I got my A and then I would send a short note to the dean / head of the department.

I would add the context of you being the caretaker of your mother (I think you can leave the mental heath issues off the note)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:40 PM on December 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

Geez, sorry you got that rudeness directed at you! Since you don't have a horse in this fight anymore, you don't gain anything by responding to the instructor or bringing this to the attention of the department. Still, if you have the time, you would be doing all future students of this instructor a big favour by writing a polite letter to their supervisor letting them know the comments and that you found them inappropriate.
posted by Pwoink at 3:42 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a learning experience for your instructor - her rubric and extra credit allowed for someone who didn't participate in class to make up those points. Sounds like she is lamenting this fact now, but it's too late. This isn't your fault - these obvious loopholes are things that instructors learn as they teach.

After the class has ended, I would email the chair of her department as flibbertigibbet has written. Don't email her - her comments are indicative of a vindictive nature. And I wouldn't bring up your situation to the chair - all they need to know is that the instructor acted in an unprofessional manner.
posted by umwhat at 3:42 PM on December 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't really feel the need to justify why I was absent...

Did you ever explain to your instructor why you were so often absent?

There are two schools of thought about what happens in a university class. One school says that you go to class in order to get a grade, accumulate grades and then graduate. Another school says that the experience of being in a course with other people eager to learn the material of the course is intrinsically worthwhile and the grade is a entirely secondary matter. People who teach, particularly graduate students, tend to think that the material is intrinsically interesting. You admit that going to class was just not worth your time: you had better things to do.

If you didn't tell your instructor why you weren't in class, your actions communicated to the instructor that this class was a waste of your time... and by extension, that the instructor was wasting her time trying to teach. This class was important to the instructor but not to you. Fine, you had better things to do, but I don't understand why you think the instructor shouldn't care whether you went to class or not.
posted by at 3:45 PM on December 8, 2014 [32 favorites]

I think those comments are out of line and unprofessional -- there are certainly ways to address attendance and lack of participation. It would've been better to say something like "You do good work when it comes to tests and papers, but I did note how often you were out of class and how little you participated when you were there." So I think on that account, it may be worth pointing out to whoever is above her that this was uncalled for. Or let it go.

But I do think most instructors are pretty understanding when it comes to life circumstances. While there are rules to follow, I know most of them have a lot of leeway to make allowances for people. You didn't need to tell her specifically why you were absent, but I think had you given her a heads up in the beginning that there were circumstances that sometimes meant you weren't going to be in class, she may have been more understanding about this. All she knew was that you didn't come to class a lot and didn't participate much when you were there. I am not blaming you for her behavior since she had time to address it (I've had instructors pull me aside and ask why I've been missing class before) and I still think she acted inappropriately. But I can still sort of understand where she is coming from.
posted by darksong at 3:47 PM on December 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

This is one of those not as rare as a person might think occasions when being as gracious as possible is likely to make an offender feel as bad as possible about their behavior.

Write something to the effect of 'the dedication and enthusiasm for your subject which come through even in these final comments remind me just how much I did miss by not participating in class discussions, but I am a full-time caretaker for my paralyzed mother, and I could attend class only when we could find and afford someone to cover for me -- and when I was able to show up, I always had the feeling that speaking up would make my absences all the more glaringly obvious. Sincerely, anonymous.'
posted by jamjam at 3:51 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm an instructor. I dislike when my students don't come to class, even though they can still get an A in my courses if they do good work on written assignments.

Two things:
- tell people upfront if scheduling is a problem. As a teacher I would have no problem with someone missing classes if they were a full time caregiver and had their own issues. I had a student who had a lot on her plate and we just worked it out behind the scenes, but she came to me to talk about it as soon as she missed one class. So next time I suggest being upfront - not in classes, since you're graduating, but if this is an issue at work you need to go to HR early and document it.
- I would never give a student that kind of unprofessional feedback! This isn't about her feelings ("It pains me") - it's about your work. I would contact the instructor of record about this.

Don't get the Dean involved. Just pass on an unemotional note (e.g. "this feedback seemed unprofessional to me and I wanted to let you know about it as the instructor of record") and let it go. This is also not about your feelings, so I wouldn't even give a reason to the instructor about your absences. I would not say how the feedback made you feel either. The instructor can ask if they want to know more specifics. cc: your unprofessional TA on the email and then go do something nice for yourself.

I'm sorry about you and your mom and all the stress. Congrats on graduating!
posted by sockermom at 3:52 PM on December 8, 2014 [22 favorites]

I work in a university department, and I work with our faculty, and I work with our graduate teaching assistants/instructors. If one of our grad students left a comment like that on a student's paper, the faculty sponsor and department chair would VERY MUCH like to know it. It would be a "teachable moment" for that instructor and the professor of record. It would result in that graduate student receiving very focused mentoring on how to interact with and communicate with students. It would mean that the instructor was under the magnifying glass during her next teaching appointment. It may not even be her first strike.

The comments she left for you are snarky, rude, and unprofessional, but they didn't cause you any harm. However, the department has a very keen interest in making sure that this graduate student does not form a habit of communicating with students in this way, because she could one-up herself and comments to a student down the line may end up constituting harassment or a hostile environment. The department VERY MUCH does not want that. They want to prevent it.

Contact the professor and copy the department chair. Be extremely polite and non-litigious, but also outline why you feel her communication was inappropriate. Do not use your caretaking of your mother as any kind of excuse, if you mention it at all.

But yes, tell the professor and the department, not the grad student.

This is speaking for my own department, obviously, which is run by good people. If you're in a shitty department, all bets may be off.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:54 PM on December 8, 2014 [25 favorites]

I don't know how many of us responding are faculty or work at universities. I'm a professor, FWIW. I think if you really want to make a point, you could email the instructor and let her know. She probably is used to flakes and assumes the worst. I always try to assume the best, but not everyone learns these lessons early.

If you really want to make a point, email the instructor of record. If she's a grad student, there is very likely someone supervising her. Don't email the Dean. It's such an escalation of a pretty small infraction. Do you really think this is so awful you want whole groups of people to meet about it? Do you want the Dean, Associate Dean, Department Chair, Program Chair, and Instructor to know this happened? The Dean will either ignore this or go nuclear. Neither action is helpful.
posted by parkerjackson at 3:55 PM on December 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

Although this was a rather sarcastic and snarky way to address your participation in the class, to see it from the instructor's side: if you didn't inform her of the reasons for your absences and low participation (even just to say it was a personal matter), it's very easy to see your lack of engagement as laziness, disinterest, and rude behavior. Keep in mind that the instructor is probably pouring more energy (and heart) in to this class than is visible on the surface, so it's hard not to take students' lack of work personally. It's also very frustrating when you genuinely want your students to do well and learn - which is most instructors that I know - and you see one cutting corners just to get the grade.

This is not to say that her comments were justified, but to explain that that from her point of view, you blew your chance for an education that she worked hard to give you.

I don't think a gentle letter to the instructor would hurt, and it might be instructive to her as a relatively new instructor - but I'd be diplomatic about it. You both could have done better with this situation - but if you let her know that you'd been dealing with difficult personal issues, she'll rethink her snark without needing to be called out for it.
posted by Ms. Toad at 3:55 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Call it a learning experience and move on. Your instructor disliked your absence, and now you know. If this were a job, they would have fired you. Again, now you know. Beyond that, why pursue this further? If you don't have a reason, don't.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:56 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry but... you are not a customer, and you should not expect instructors to treat you as a consumer to be catered to...But the job of the instructor was to give you an evaluation. You got evaluated.

The OP most likely spent tens of thousands of dollars per semester. While that doesn't mean he's entitled to an A on demand or anything of the sort, it does, along with basic human decency, mean that these comments are out of line. There are plenty of professional, non snarky ways to communicate that you're pleased with a student's performance on written work but wish you had seen more of them in class.

The instructor is free to rewrite the syllabus next year to make attendance mandatory or to make participation is larger part of the grade. In the meantime, she should keep the snotty comments to herself.
posted by zachlipton at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2014 [21 favorites]

Let me clarify my comment based on parkerjackson's: In my (small) department, the department chair is ultimately responsible for all instruction, including grad students'. If this department is larger or structured differently, I concur with parkerjackson that copying the department chair may be an unjustified escalation.

(Do NOT involve the dean.)
posted by mudpuppie at 3:58 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your point is to teach her a lesson about fairness or appropriateness, being passive aggressive or playing gotcha games with her isn't going to accomplish that.

You got an A. You did what you set out to do. If you really feel strongly about this send a copy of the comments to the department head but prepare yourself to have a hassle on your hands right here at graduation time.

posted by TryTheTilapia at 4:28 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, I am a university instructor, and I would never say this to someone.

I'm sorry but... you are not a customer, and you should not expect instructors to treat you as a consumer to be catered to. You were a participant who then looked at the "rules" of the system, realized what you could get away with, and defied the implicit expectations of your participation in class because you needed the class for the purposes of credit so you could graduate.

Hmm, I don't know. I just . . . kind of accept that just because I'm teaching the class, and am super passionate about the subject, doesn't mean that anyone else cares. Was this a 100-level course? The instructor should know that there are SO many motivations for taking an introductory course, very few that have to do with intrinsic interest in the course.
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:32 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

nthing not contacting the dean.

My department has a staff member in charge of TAs; any immediate escalation beyond contacting them (i.e., contacting the department chair or the dean) will cause them to write you off entirely. If the TA is the instructor of record, find who ever is in charge of TAs and contact them with your concerns first. If they're not, contact who ever is in charge of TAs plus the instructor of record.

As others have mentioned, if you have any sort of life situation that will severely impact your participation in a course, let the TA know in advance. If I received one of the snarky-suggested emails-- that you were the sole caretaker of your mother-- I would go, "Give me a break", and likely dismiss it. Because what reason do I have to believe you at this point? But if you told me at the beginning of the semester, I would work something out with you, and maybe even be a little lenient with my grading.

Even if you're graduating now, let this be a general lesson to you. If you miss things without explanation, people will treat you like a flake and think that you're not showing them respect, and will return in kind, because that's all they can see.
posted by damayanti at 4:44 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would wait until you're done collecting grades from this class and the marks are submitted (to avoid further backlash), and then report it to the dean or some authority figure who oversees these instructors. It is highly inappropriate for an instructor to say "it pains me to give you an A" or make it seem like they have a personal vendetta against you. Report, report, report.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:49 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm a professor. And I wish you had told your instructors about your life issues. Last week a student told me she had an invisible disability. If only she had told me at the beginning I wouldn't have been annoyed with her (like your TA was annoyed with you, although I didn't express it as she did) and I would have cut her slack all term. (I told her that she should consider exploring accommodations and that I would recommend disclosing to future instructors.)
I'd send this email and Cc her supervisor.

"Hi Jane.
I got your feedback on Reflection Paper 4 (attached). To be honest, I was hurt by your comments. I regret not telling you at the beginning of the term but I am having a very tough semester because I have become the primary caretaker for my dying mother. My absences in class that you noted were not by choice and certainly I've been distracted. Again, I wish that I had disclosed this to you at the start of the term and I understand your frustration with my absences and performance in class (and I am too) but your comments were still painful and inappropriate and I wanted to let you know. Thanks, Joe Blow."

I think that this letter will serve to teach her a little lesson (one we all need as instructors), will notify her supervisor about it, and maybe make you feel better.
posted by k8t at 4:52 PM on December 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

You don't have course evaluations? This would be the perfect thing to mention on a course evaluation. Otherwise, after the course is over, go to whoever is in charge of the graduate teaching assistants in the department. This is not okay, and they will want to know. It's not a dean-level problem, but this grad student needs a talking-to from one of their higher ups.
posted by karbonokapi at 4:52 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a graduate student instructor:

1. If participation is 10% of a class grade, then attendance is expected if not explicitly mandatory. It is very difficult to teach a discussion-heavy class when students aren't engaged; absences and lack of participation not only make the instructor's job harder, but degrade the experience for other students.

You may have gotten a good grade in the end, but I completely understand where the instructor is coming from in being "pained" to give you an A. For all they know, you completely blew off an important component of the course and the grading structure prevents them from giving you a grade that reflects that. (It's hard to weight participation grades as heavily as you might want.)

2. This was a completely unprofessional tone for the instructor to take. It's your responsibility to communicate with your instructors when something prevents you from doing all of the work (such as attendance/participation), and it's the instructor's responsibility to address shortcomings respectfully.

I believe that this is something you should address in evaluations, which will be read by the instructor and their faculty advisors in their department. Since you are graduating and there is literally nothing this instructor could do, you could also send a message (after grades are submitted). k8t's wording is, in my mind, ideal -- it will make the instructor less likely to write you off, because you are acknowledging that you should have contacted earlier. But it also clearly demonstrates that the instructor should not have been so disrespectful because they did not know your circumstances.

(They shouldn't have been disrespectful either way, but if they have a shred of decency they will learn something about making assumptions.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:02 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Please do not contact the Dean - or the faculty.

Graduate Student instructors are in a very vulnerable position. They have very little power over policy, but also
are expected to bear full responsibility for the success of their class. Add to this the stress of writing a dissertation. For all you know, your instructor may have been having some serious mental health problems herself; depression is endemic in graduate schools.

You didn't go to the class, even after your instructor stressed the importance of attendance and participation. If you did not explain why you weren't attending, then it likely appeared to her that you were being as disrespect to her as an instructor as she was to you as a student.
posted by jb at 5:08 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

deanc has it, more or less. If a class is relatively small and it's clear that the instructor is teaching the class in such a way that they get to know most of the students, then, irrespective of the specifics of the syllabus or the "grading scheme" or whatever, there are likely serious pedagogical reasons why the instructor wants everyone there (absent some extenuating circumstance, and it is the student's responsibility to bring these [the extenuating circumstances] up).

(A giant lecture course with hundreds of students is a whole different animal; basically, the deciding factor is whether or not students are supposed to benefit from the participation of their classmates.)

I teach small classes where quite a bit of the work is done in small groups, and non-participants are thus explicitly dicking over their classmates by not turning up; this is made clear at the beginning of the semester, but attendance is not enforced by grading since the students are not children and I'm not there to spread the message that people should take their shit seriously only in response to authority's prodding.

I won't express it like your instructor did, and it won't affect your grade, but if you are inexplicably chronically absent from my class, I will be chronically pissed off at you and not cut you slack in situations where I have the option.

I'm also quite happy to discuss, privately, extenuating circumstances with individual students and make some other arrangement to accommodate their need to miss class, and in fact I will make and have made fairly labour-intensive (for me) such arrangements. It's completely on the student to raise the issue with me, though.

It would be really inappropriate to complain to the department, because a bureaucracy is there to police specific breaches of specific rules -- a bureaucracy can't necessarily understand nuanced interpersonal situations -- and I doubt any took place. She took umbrage at your poor attendance, presumably reasoned that, if you had a good explanation, you would have made it, and, since you didn't, she filed you under something like "entitled student who doesn't respect their classmates, the ideas we're studying, and the large amount of work I'm putting into teaching this class". It's reasonable to be upset by her comments -- and they are shitty comments -- but the adult response is to take it up with her (in whatever tone of written voice you see fit), not call in a bureaucratic airstrike on an instructor for expressing their legitimate frustration in a heavy-handed way (especially if the instructor is a graduate student or an adjunct).

And if, in the future, you take a class featuring a lot of discussion, either show up to class or work out some other arrangement with the instructor if you can't.
posted by busted_crayons at 5:20 PM on December 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

What? You missed a lot of class, and the instructor called you out for it. It's accurate, it's not going to anyone else, so what is the problem?

You know that you had a legitimate reason for being absent which I suppose you could tell her if it would make you feel better but I think she wasn't out of line in taking her final opportunity to express her disappointment.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:26 PM on December 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Most of us in academia at any level are under a fair bit of pressure, and many have depression or other mental health issues. Some people use this as an excuse to behave in nasty or unprofessional ways. I don't think that's OK.

I assumed that the graduate student here is the instructor of record when I said you should mention this to a departmental official. If there is a faculty member who supervises this class, then, yes, that is the person to mention this to.
posted by grouse at 5:27 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

While I agree with everyone who has said that the comments were unprofessional, I don't think they were that out of line. If you never conveyed to her why you were absent so often and never participated in class, you can hardly expect an extra helping of compassion. You don't feel the need to justify why you were absent, but you expect to be cut a lot of slack because of it. As far as she can tell, you're just another student gaming the system, and as such her dissatisfaction with your performance is understandable and even a sign that she gives a shit about her job.

Also, you might ask yourself whether she might be keeping anything from you, as in a breakup or a death in the family, that might be making her more irritable than you think she has a right to be.

Let it go.
posted by bricoleur at 5:43 PM on December 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

Her comments were completely inappropriate. You don't need to consider her mental health or her employment prospects to feel hurt that she left such inappropriate comments on your work and to want this addressed so that it doesn't happen to other students. I would never in a million years leave comments like that for a student and I'm a little outraged on your behalf. If she wanted to require attendance, she should have required it in her syllabus, or added a stipulation that extra credit can't compensate for lack of attendance. The problem isn't that she simply commented on your attendance and participation, which would be completely fair - I actually hate it when professors assign participation grades without so much as a word of justification or feedback- but that her tone was bitingly sarcastic and totally unprofessional.

I've had students flake out for various reasons, and the only time I ever get annoyed about it is when they come to me at the end of the term and expect special treatment. Unless you approached her with some special pleading at the last minute, it sounds like you were perfectly willing to accept the consequences of missing class and simply made a rational cost/benefit analysis based on the policies outlined in her syllabus. While she has every right to give you feedback about your performance, she does not have the right to morally take you to task for making those choices and accepting the consequences.

If it were me, I would try to calm down and forget about it until after finals, but afterwards I do think it would be fine to bring this to the attention of her supervising professor. She needs to hear from somebody that this isn't an OK way to communicate with people.
posted by dialetheia at 6:25 PM on December 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

If you never conveyed to her why you were absent so often and never participated in class, you can hardly expect an extra helping of compassion.

What about any? TAs and professors see hundreds of students a semester, they know the ropes. Many assume the worst of students who don't meet their expectations, in the absence of information. But students don't know the system until they hit a wall, and many simply don't find it within their capacity to come forward early in the semester, because they've have never had to deal with whatever personal issue is rearing its head at the time - or they may have, but not while carrying the challenges of increasingly difficult coursework. All of it's new to them. And after all, it's just then that many students are first confronted with mental health or adjustment issues, which may well interfere with clear and timely communication. They may not even recognize what's going on, themselves. The fine print's in the syllabus, sure, but a student struggling with mental health issues, compounded by stress from caretaking or financial obligations, or who just has a personality that doesn't lend itself to self-assertion in the context of lack of familiarity with a system might have a hard time coming forward. All the more reason for generosity, or respectful and professional communication, at the very least.

Graduate Student instructors are in a very vulnerable position. They have very little power over policy, but also
are expected to bear full responsibility for the success of their class. Add to this the stress of writing a dissertation. For all you know, your instructor may have been having some serious mental health problems herself; depression is endemic in graduate schools.

And undergraduates are, pretty obviously, in an even more vulnerable position. It's very possible that the instructor has some issue or other. In that case, she may be positioned to understand the difficulties around recognizing symptoms and disclosure, and could do with being reminded.

I think you should definitely find a way of communicating your experience to the department (once your grades are in). Not with the aim of being punitive, but with a view to putting the kaybosh on unacceptable behaviour. I wouldn't contact the instructor, because I agree that she sounds vindictive.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:33 PM on December 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I was a student for many many years. I have many friends who are instructors, professors, TAs, etc.

I didn't attend class much - not due to other obligations, but because it wasn't really my cup of tea - I didn't learn from most classroom environments. The professor set classroom attendance/participation at 10% of your grade -- he/she set the value of that time. If you're fine with giving up that 10% (and I often was) then it's really no one's business whether you attended/participated or not. If they thought it was more important, they could value it higher. Placing a value on something to incentivize it may backfire. I was always happy with a B or higher, and the classes where I could get that without going, I didn't attend.

The TA was out of line. They were tasked with grading your paper. The comments about your class performance have nothing to do with your paper. If some particular mistake or oversight in your paper would have been ameliorated by attention to something said in class, then maybe it would be appropriate to address. These comments served no educational purpose.

I would leave a bad review for this TA with the official school review system, with ratemyprofessor, and I'd write a letter to the instructor and the dean. I have been a student and a TA; many close friends are university instructors/professors - not all of whom hold their students in high regard; this type of comment would not be tolerated in any educational environment that I've encountered. It also has nothing to do with "teaching you a lesson about the real world" -- you understood the parameters for being graded, you met those (or were prepared to accept the goalposts you wouldn't meet), you will be graded accordingly. The TA's butthurt about it; that's on them, not you. When they're a professor and teach their own class, they can issue grades accordingly. Until then, they can accept the rubric set forth by the professor.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:49 PM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

You describe the situation as 'I have had poor attendance' - which is strikingly passive.

I think you need to own your own professionalism, or lack thereof, which lasted all semester long, before you can judge anyone else's. Basically, by going for all the extra credit to get an A while ignoring the basic civility of going to class is just adding insult to injury.

I doubt I would have used the same words, but I may have expressed a similar sentiment as she did, because her underlying complaint is in fact valid. And I may have expressed it by curving your grade downwards, when I found that you did not meet my stated criteria for a good grade.
posted by Dashy at 6:58 PM on December 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

I misread - this was the class instructor, not a TA? Even more outrageous that they're butthurt about the grade you received. They set the grading criteria, they decided that 10% was appropriate for participation, they wrote the exam in a way that could be aced without being in class. (Again) as someone who attended class very very infrequently, I can tell you that the professor can catch those who do not attend by drafting the exam in accordance with in-class discussion rather than out-of-class readings. A clever (good?) instructor can place participation at "10%" but still make it effectively 100%.

Not all grad students are cut out for teaching; you should review accordingly.

That you have "special circumstances" is irrelevant -- you received an A, you're not asking for special treatment, you're not asking for understanding. The grad student instructor learned an important lesson about teaching methodologies, grading, and motivating constructive classroom discussion. You're not the only student at this school who is supposed to learn from this experience.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:12 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are two things happening here. One is that you didn't show up very much. Other folks have covered that pretty well.

But I am a graduate student TA and I'd like to stress that these comments are not the appropriate way to communicate with an undergraduate student. There are plenty of ways to convey that someone didn't meet the demands of the course without being sarcastic about it (and trust me, I just graded a paper that argued that because the Nazis had state controlled agriculture it's unethical to provide food subsidies to feed the poor. I KNOW how hard it can be to grade things when you're frustrated with a student.)

Here's the thing. This person if they are in graduate school and teaching may very well want a university faculty job after they graduate. Comments like this at the wrong university could keep them from getting their contract renewed or getting tenure. Now is the least consequential time for this person to learn that they need to handle this kind of thing professionally. Wait until your final grade has been given, then let the department know this was a problem.

Trust me, students complain to the department about their instructors all the time, and 99% of the time absolutely nothing happens because what the instructor did is totally justifiable and the department just rolls their eyes and says deal with it to the student. Letting the department know what happened will not get your instructor into trouble unless what she did is not acceptable teaching practice (which frankly I suspect it isn't.) But if she keeps doing this, someone's going to complain eventually, and the longer it's been happening, the more trouble she will be in. Reporting now is the most low-cost way (for her) that she can get help learning how to work with this stuff.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:17 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Even as an instructor of record, the graduate student might not have been allowed to set the grading criteria. Larger universities that have multiple sections of the same course often have uniform standards and assignments because all graduating students from that course need to have similar experiences despite different instructors. Some universities also have university-wide policies on attendance/participation that trump the preference of individual instructors.

So those who said the instructor's doubly at fault for not weighing participation enough may be incorrect. In fact, it could be that the instructor is upset in part because she was institutionally denied the ability to penalize student grades on this issue.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:29 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

You should take it as a learning experience. Your wish is to send a snarky email to the instructor. By your unexplained absence and lack of participation where this instructor specifically encouraged discussion and collaborative learning was most likely perceived as the "opening volley" of snark and disrespect. While it was not intended that way, that IS how most of the real world will perceive it. In the US, you can justifiably take time from work under FMLA but you have to tell the employer the reason for this.

The only situation where I cannot see extending the courtesy would be, and I can completely understand if this is the case, if you feared the stigma of being labeled as someone with mental health issues. While it is wrong in every way, people do have to make their choice about whether to disclose and accept the consequences if they don't.
posted by slavlin at 7:41 PM on December 8, 2014

If they thought it was more important, they could value it higher. Placing a value on something to incentivize it may backfire.

The grading system was meant to be generous-- the class designer wanted to emphasize that "class attendance and participation are important" by assigning a token amount of the grade to it, but at the same time didn't want to weigh participation too much which would lead to students being too afraid to risk their grade by saying something dumb in class (for example by making several letter grades depend on it without opportunities for makeup). It decidedly wasn't designed this way so that some students would be able to simply "skip" that part and still do well in the class.

I had nothing resembling the obligations that the OP faced during my studies. I did, however, have a large workload that resulted in having to make triage decisions regarding what work got done and what didn't, what got handed in on time and what got handed in late, and what lectures I could attend and which ones I couldn't. And the thing is that I kind of had to accept the responsibility of the decisions I was making without getting offended when a professor or TA scolded me and took me to task for shirking my obligations to the class. In fact, I think in part because of the time I skipped out of the end of a class I was auditing at another university, the professor stopped accepting auditors from my school in later semesters because he was tired of people like me blowing off the class to attend to other obligations. So what I did affected others down the line.

You were willing to pay the consequences of losing class participation points to attend to your other more important obligations. You should also be willing to accept the consequences of poor regard from your teachers by blowing them off without explanation.
posted by deanc at 7:45 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think reporting the Instructor, trying to get them somehow punished or penalized, or generally trying to publicly shame them, is a bit extreme and also lacking compassion. Clearly the instructor got butthurt, and evidently they allowed that butthurtitude to cloud their judgment and wrote a comment that was personal instead of professional. It's very likely that this Instructor is young and does not have the experience to assume that you had legitimate reasons for not going to class, but you did not do your part in communicating that either, and as many people here have said, school is not a commodity that you get to just use when you want and how you want. Whether or not attendance is calculated into the grade, your professional duty is to communicate to the instructor that you aren't actually just skipping class because you couldn't give a shit and just rather get high with your friends.

Your instructor is also learning about professionalism and compassion. When I was a very young 25-year old TA, I'm sure this is the kind of shit I would have pulled. Even today, 15 years later, I don't always deal with issues in the best way - college professors have a lot of students, hear a lot of excuses, put up with a lot of bullshit, and sometimes they jump to the wrong conclusions when they feel butthurt. But just like it's not professional for them to punish their students with a bad grade when students are inconsiderate or downright offensive, it would not be professional for you to try and get her punished.

She needs to be called out though - definitely in the course evaluation (Chairs and Deans read those), mention that she took your poor performance a bit too personally and wrote passive aggressive notes on your papers.
posted by microcarpetus at 7:54 PM on December 8, 2014

I would absolutely report this to the department -- the associate chair in charge of teaching (or whatever this position is called at your school), plus the main instructor if she was a TA. I would be royally pissed if I found out my GSIs were being snarky jackasses to students. It is SO not okay. I would wait until final grades are posted, since she's already shown you how unprofessional she is.

It doesn't even matter why you missed class -- with the grading scheme as laid out in the syllabus, you earned all the points you needed for your grade. If she set the grading scheme and is upset it didn't coerce the attendance she wanted, too bad, that's her problem, and she can fix it next time. If she was stuck with a grading scheme set by higher ups, her problem is with them, not with the students, and it's wildly inappropriate to take it out on students. If she actually cared about having you attend class, she should have contacted you early, when absences started, and asked if something was up.

I say all of this as an instructor who highly values attendance. I design my classes with lots of unannounced in-class assignments, so it's very hard to get a great grade without showing up. If a strong student has more important things to do than come to class and still gets the grade he/she wants, fine. I would rather have an explanation from students with poor attendance so I don't worry about them, but if I don't get one, I certainly don't flip out on the student. Sheesh.
posted by ktkt at 8:24 PM on December 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

I also would advise making it clear to the department that you do not want a grade revision in any way whatsoever, that you feel your work was graded fairly, and that only the unprofessional tone of the comments was a problem for you. This will help move your email and evidence out of the "overachievers who just want more points" pile and into the "something we actually need to look at" pile.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:35 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

If it makes you feel better, the snarky comments speak to the powerlessness the TA feels. They're admitting they have no ability to give you what *they* felt you deserve. If they could have made a difference in your grade (marked you down), they obviously would have. I can understand why you feel shamed by it, but it might be more constructive to chalk it up in the W column. It's kind of like when a cop pulled me over once and (for once in my life) I convinced them I was right (the light was yellow, ma'am) - they had to sputter and snarl, because they were embarrassed. Something about this situation is making the TA feel small, and it's not about you.

Not saying schadenfreude is a great way to go through life, just suggesting it as a coping strategy in this instance.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:59 PM on December 8, 2014

No matter what your attendance issues were, that was HELLA unprofessional on the part of your TA to say exactly what they said. I nth reporting this to the department, but waiting until your grade is in. Hell, I might wait until after you've been officially degree awarded to report this one, just to make SURE s/he can't screw with you any more for vengeance.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:05 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd have some choice comments on the instructor evaluation form, which there should be. If not, a meeting with the supervising professor is a reasonable solution.
posted by Kurichina at 9:29 PM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

The thing is - if you don't report this, the TA will do the same exact thing to someone else next quarter and the next quarter after that and one of these times it will be the final straw to a person's self-esteem issues and could actually result in someone dropping out of college because they take those comments to mean they're not college material. Ideally, all future students of this TA will be able to push the snarky stuff to the side and carry on, but no one knows. What IS known is that this is unprofessional behavior and if the person isn't corrected, she will continue to do the same thing.

That's reason enough to put in a complaint, but yes, do it after there's no question of a motivation on your part of trying to improve your own grade or status.

Many CONGRATULATIONS on your graduation!
posted by aryma at 9:55 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

If the instructor is relatively new to teaching, she probably invested a lot of herself into the class, well beyond the call of duty, and is likely taking your lack of attendance as a personal affront. At least, that's how I feel as a new teacher. I've had sleepless nights over people not showing up. Yeah, I know I should let it go, but that's how it is until you get more experience.

That said, she handled it TERRIBLY. Definitely report this to the appropriate faculty member in the department. For the sake of other students', and her own professional development, she needs to know this is unacceptable.

I guess there's nothing stopping you from giving her a bad course evaluation, but evals go on her teaching record which she will use to apply for jobs, and these could seriously jeopardize her career. After all, you have an A to show for your poor attendance (extenuating circumstances notwithstanding), and if she gets a permanent black mark for snarky comments... I don't know.
posted by redlines at 10:07 PM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

First off, I'm sorry that you are dealing with your own mental health issues while caring for your mother and going to school; that's a lot to take on, and I hope you have support.

As a faculty member reading your story I thought to myself that it was a good reminder of why it is important to try to remain open and charitable in what is now high season for student flakiness and excuse making. Many people are dealing with difficult things and fighting their own, private, battles, and if I can make someone's load a little lighter while being fair to others, your story reminded me that I should.

I encourage you to bring this spirit of charity to your instructor's comments.

I wouldn't write something like that; I learned long ago that sarcasm when teaching, especially in written feedback, usually backfires. But here's my (charitable) take on your instructor's comments: she is likely someone who strives to have a dynamic rapport with the students in her course, and likes to tease in a (misguided) attempt to build camaraderie. She is paying you a complement: you clearly mastered the material without attending the sessions. But she wishes you had come to class and shared your insights with others in the course.

And like you, she might also be fighting a private battle which caused her internal filter to malfunction.

Some of the comments suggesting that you report her to the dean strike me as misguided. If this instructor had a "vendetta" against you, it was a profoundly ineffective vendetta since she gave you an A. Involving the dean or other faculty members would be petty and could have unforeseen consequences for the instructor.

Let it go, and remember to be charitable when you are in a position of power over someone. If you have to do something, wait for the grades to be posted and write your instructor directly saying you enjoyed the material and are sorry you didn't attend more sessions due to your care responsibilities.
posted by girl flaneur at 10:33 PM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

To clarify why I'm recommending contacting someone: if she is young, and frustrated, and even fighting her own personal battles, she might need someone to approach her about professional standards in education.

Students drive us nuts; you don't write paragraph-long, passive-aggressive odes to their general failures on their papers.

This could be a one-off because she's had a terrible semester and wants to explode/cry/scream.

Or she might not yet understand professional conduct (depending on her age, this might be her first 'office job') and might need someone to go over it with her.

Unfortunately, as a student who frustrated her, you are not the person to have this conversation with her, as your comments will likely be in one ear, out the other (plus, she's probably fairly cynical right now; 'Tis the season for likely excuses/fa la la la la, fa la la la).

I am not recommending pettiness or a quest for her blood. But if she truly does not yet understand how to behave in a professional setting, alerting someone to it and (perhaps) having them correct it/discuss it with her might actually be the best course of action.

And yes, if you take any classes in the future, a simple head's-up during office hours during the first 2 weeks of class ("I'm very excited for this class, but I just wanted to let you know that my attendance might be spotty because of..." or "I might need accommodations because of..." or even "I've never really dealt with X before, can you check my understanding/recommend additional readings to get me up to speed?") will probably defuse instructor frustrations.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:13 AM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would let it go. If attendance and participation was more than 10% important it would be worth more than 10%. You did what you had to do.

BUT! This can be a teachable moment for yourself that even though you excelled in the areas of the class where your were personally capable, your inability to excell in that other 10% makes you look liek a dud. Had you made your possible attendance issue known to the instructor at the beginning of the class, you would look like a rockstar right now.

This same scenario would play out much worse in the working world. Instead of negative feedback you may well lose a job. But to be a rockstar and keep that job, all you need to do is give people a heads up so a workable solution can be agreed upon prior to $issues.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:58 AM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can the drama. You were rude and unprofessional, she was rude and unprofessional. It all seems like a wash to me.

Crying to the administration as if this is a real problem when you got an A and are graduating is ridiculous.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

You didn't do 10% of the class; but she still let you do extra credit, which means you still got an "A". Consider her being a mild jerk as trade for letting you do extra credit despite not doing all the "regular" credit.
posted by spaltavian at 6:37 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

She was rude and unprofessional, and it's up to you to take or leave that as you will.

That said, as a former adjudicant for academic appeals, I'd like to point out that your instructor's dismay at your (lack of) attendance was not uncalled for, even given your circumstances.

You mentioned in your post that participation in class makes up 10% of your grade. While your performance and future plans may make your participation mark moot for you (now that the course is done), you had a duty to inform your instructor of circumstances that might require special consideration in grading, as soon as you were aware that such circumstances existed.

The overwhelming majority of academic appeals put before me (and the rest of the committee with whom I shared this responsibility) to adjudicate were from students demanding special consideration for extenuating circumstances that were claimed to have been present all term, but were only brought to the attention of their instructor, department chair, registrar, or any other relevant authority at the university AFTER they received a grade that had consequences they didn't want to suffer. In all of these cases, their appeal was denied, because they had not carried out the duty I mentioned above.

So while your instructors choice of words to express her dismay may have been out of line, her assumption that you had no good excuse for missing all the classes that you did has a solid basis in an entirely reasonable expectation that had you a good excuse, you ought to have told her about it earlier.
posted by kiwano at 11:17 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

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